It began a few years ago, when our son proposed to Veronica, a wonderful young woman he’d been dating for a number of years. Her response left him dazed. “Amir,” she answered him hesitantly, “there’s something I have to tell you. I’m kind of like not Jewish.”
Veronica, it turned out, is one of those 330,000 immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who arrived here as a child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Though she received a Jewish education in an Israeli school, celebrated the Jewish holidays with family and friends, and served in the army in defense of the Jewish state, she knew she’d be denied a Jewish burial if she were to die in service of the country she so loved. Even worse, and more immediate, she was now going to be denied a Jewish wedding.
It’s not that Veronica didn’t want to convert, but discovered early on that the doors of Israel’s official rabbinical courts were closed to her as she was not prepared to commit to the Orthodox lifestyle they demanded, nor the stipulation that she only date observant men. Still, Veronica was not prepared to relinquish the profound bond she felt to the Jewish tradition, the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
Suddenly the statistic had turned into a person. That heretofore faceless body of hundreds of thousands of FSU émigrés had knocked up against my family’s door and wanted in. Amir didn’t know what to do.
Fortunately, I did. One call to the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Jerusalem set in motion a year of intensive learning that culminated in Veronica’s conversion before a Masorti Bet Din. But that’s not where the story ends.
Though her conversion is recognized by the Ministry of the Interior, it isn’t by the office of the Chief Rabbi, which has sole discretion in determining who is allowed to marry as a Jew. So the wedding they had here, presided over by a Conservative rabbi, was actually an illegal act literally punishable by jail time. And now, as far as that same Chief Rabbinate is concerned, Amir and Veronica, who couldn’t conceive (pardon the pun) of having children who wouldn’t be Jewish, have gone ahead and done exactly that. Unless we change things, when the time comes for their precious Maya, my granddaughter, to stand under the chuppah, she will face precisely the same problem her mother did. And she’s not alone.
Making aliyah was supposed to be the surest way of guaranteeing that one’s grandchildren would be Jewish. I confess Jewish grandchildren were not high on my list of reasons for moving here at the age of 20. Still, somehow the thought was always reassuring. Now I feel betrayed. I need your help to set things right. And there is something very real you can do right now to make a difference.
You can vote. Not in Israel’s elections, but in elections that will impact directly on what happens there – and on Jewish life around the world. These are the elections for the World Zionist Congress, taking place until the end of April. The Congress, which will be convening later this year in Jerusalem, will set policy and influence budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars for initiatives that will impact on the nature of Israel and its ties with world Jewry. It’s an election you need to care about if you care about Israel, and whether or not all Jews will be able to live, practice and pray there as they wish.
The voice of Conservative/Masorti Jewry in this election is represented by MERCAZ, which is determined to transform into deed our collective passion for fashioning the Jewish state as an exemplary pluralistic and inclusive society every Jew can proudly call home. In addition to its role in the World Zionist Organization, MERCAZ lobbies members of the Knesset for the equality of all streams of Judaism and for a society committed to peace with its neighbors, social justice, gender equality, fair treatment of minorities, environmental sustainability, clean government, the engagement of the next generation in shaping the Jewish future, and the security of the State of Israel and of Jews everywhere.
Unfortunately , these are not things to be taken for granted. Orthodox hegemony, rising intolerance and mounting religious coercion are all threatening the health of this society. Countering all of that are the many achievements of the Conservative/Masorti movement that have been made possible due to the resources that MERCAZ has been able to leverage and its strong presence in the World Zionist Organization.
We now have 75 Masorti/Conservative synagogues in the country, a dedicated area at the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer, the youth movement NOAM, and a Ramah-NOAM overnight camp. We’ve built the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem for the training of our own rabbis and grown a network of 260 TALI schools that educate 40,000 children in the spirit of Conservative Judaism. We’ve established a Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, as well, where thousands of young people from around the world have immersed themselves in traditional Jewish learning in an egalitarian environment, and we have provided support for USY and Ramah Israel programs. Through our representation in the Jewish National Fund we’ve developed an exciting, pluralistic educational center at Kibbutz Hannaton. And with funds we’ve accessed through the WZO we’ve enabled Masorti/Conservative communities to develop in Hungary, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, France, Germany, England, the Czech Republic, and the Ukraine.
Israel is at a crossroads. And MERCAZ needs your vote to ensure that together we keep moving in the right direction. We are all proud of everything that Israel has already achieved. Making your voice heard in the elections for the World Zionist Congress will ensure that we continue to be proud of all it is yet to become, and that we will all be able to dance at Maya’s wedding.